Last week, I decided to go to my favorite dimsum place: Far East Restaurant. Apparently a lot of other people also had the same idea because the place was absolutely packed. People were crowding around the waiting area, lining up to get their tables, waiting for their friends and family members to show up, etc. There was so much chatter around, and as I tried to navigate to the front, I realized that I could understand bits and pieces of people’s conversations. One might wonder why this is even mentioned since it should be obvious that most people speak English and I should be able to understand that, but in actuality, the people all around me were speaking Chinese (specifically Mandarin and Cantonese). Although this should not be surprising to me since I was going into an authentic Chinese restaurant, the idea of actually seeing a majority of Asians, specifically Chinese people, made me realize how much my interpretation and perception of authenticity has changed. Although the authenticity card has been played before by other Chinese restaurants, Far East Restaurant utilizes this to actually reinforce the idea of Chinese culture and to target a specific population, rather than diversifying to fit American culture.
Drawing from my own experiences there, Far East Restaurant seems to manipulate authenticity through three main things: décor, food, and atmosphere. First to talk about décor, there are many decorations that are placed, both in the exterior and interior of the restaurant, to suggest an Asian theme. For example, there are Chinese lion statues placed around the outside of the restaurant as well as inside. There are also Chinese calligraphy paintings on the walls and framed name plates with Chinese characters. The second aspect, which is food, also reinforces that authenticity by putting items on the menu that are reminiscent of Chinese dimsum. This means that it does not serve the typical egg rolls and fried rice, but foods such as steamed shui mai and fried taro dumping with meat filling. The last aspect is atmosphere. Unlike other restaurants in which servers come carrying menus, the servers are typically the people pushing around carts carrying the dimsum. To order food, one would most likely communicate in Chinese about which plate/bowl of food one would like to try.
By utilizing these three aspects, Far East Restaurant creates a small place of Chinese culture in which consumers feel as if they are enjoying the real deal, an actual authentic experience. Although the food that they serve may not be completely the same as dimsum served in China or even possibly contain the same range of food as those in China, the combination of all of these aspects helps reinforce the idea that this is strictly Chinese and not just Chinese that is manipulated to fit into American culture. This allows them to bring in a more Asian audience, which in turn reinforces that authenticity because the presence of such a group can indicate a seal of approval on the validity of the restaurant’s basis. Furthermore, just because it gives off this authenticity feel, it does not mean that non-Asians are not welcome. Although there was a majority of Chinese people there that day, there were also a few who were not. By making the menus in Chinese and English, the restaurant was inclusive in allowing others to explore Chinese culture as well and experience it through the food.
In contrast, there are also other Chinese restaurants who are playing the authenticity card differently, such as Panda Express. As I mentioned before, my own idea of authenticity in relation to Chinese restaurants has been manipulated due to the increasing amount of fast food Chinese restaurants around (i.e. Panda Express). The difference is that while Panda Express claims to carry authentic Chinese food, it does not do anything to reinforce that authenticity besides putting in names for dishes that sound foreign (i.e. Kung Pao Chicken). Although it claims to have “gourmet Chinese food”, the décor, food, and atmosphere of the place do not seem to indicate that it is even a Chinese restaurant. The authenticity is lost as it tries to weave in American culture and manipulate the restaurant to allow for a wider consumer appeal. Because of the alterations that have been made to the overall restaurant, Panda Express is not able to establish itself as a real Chinese restaurant, unlike Far East Restaurant. By maintaining both authenticity and inclusivity, Far East Restaurant strikes that perfect balance in which it welcomes diversity without compromising one’s culture.